Dance Like a Man

Dance Like a Man

Classical dance in India was never reserved for women. From the Nataraja,the symbol of natya in India,to the codification and construction of most classical styles attributed to male dancers and academicians,the world of Indian classical dance has seen illustrious dancers such as VP Dhananjayan,Uday Shankar,Kelucharan Mohapatra and Birju Maharaj. But male dancers have faced prejudices,including those of homosexuality and femininity. Master of Arts – A Life in Dance (Hachette,Rs 599) is a book about the illustrious dancer duo VP Dhananjayan and Shanta Dhananjayan. On World Dance Day on April 29,Bharatanatyam dancer and author of the book,Tulsi Badrinath says that the status of the male dancers in India remains marginalised.

You have tried to intersperse your gurus’ story,put yourself in there as the shishya and juxtaposed it with the stories of other male dancers. What triggered the process of writing this book?

I had always wanted to describe what it is to be a dancer. In Master of Arts,I wanted to take the reader along with me on a winged journey into the world of classical arts. This book took nearly 40 years to develop,the time I have spent as a dancer,although it took only about three years to write. I held long interviews with the Dhananjayans,who were incredibly frank. They shared many interesting incidents of their life,even stories of backstage disasters. Once,a huge overhead light fell inches away from Shanta’s head while she was performing on stage. Without batting an eyelid,while still in character,she pushed it off the stage.

Tell us how you entered the world of Bharatanatyam.

My mother casually asked me if I wanted to learn dance. I said yes. My guru’s abhinaya transfixed me and made me want to become a dancer. His expressions reached into me,made me feel each one of them. I loved the expressive possibilities of abhinaya.

What were those times like and what did it mean to subvert the system in the ‘60s?


VP Dhananjayan began performing at a time when Bharatanatyam was a woman’s domain and male dancers were looked down upon. In Kalakshetra,his alma mater,there was always a space for men to dance,because Rukmini Devi had trained them specially for her dance dramas. When Dhananjayan quit Kalakshetra,he faced many prejudices. The sabhas,or organisations promoting art,did not think anyone was interested in watching a man dance. It wasn’t paying enough to support a family. His main streams of income came from performing for tourists,at conferences and weddings. Teaching brought in a tiny income,as well. He performed with his wife since a couple was more acceptable than a solo male dancer. Slowly,as his talent came to the fore,he became a renowned dancer. His international collaborations with Ravi Shankar and the Ohio Ballet among others,showed how much more a classical artist could do,when given the right funding and infrastructure. My guru came from a poor family and by sheer hardwork and talent became the most renowned male Bharatanatyam dancer of that time,managing to make a living from the arts.

Has the situation changed in the present day?

That is the subject of my book. The prejudice and stigma still exists,though there are more male Bharatanatyam dancers today,and it is still tough to make a living as a dancer.

Do you think prejudices exist among the audience as well?

Yes,but at the same time,when the best of men danced,such as Kelucharan Mohapatra,Birju Maharaj,or my own guru,those prejudices were overcome.